Actors aren't the only ones whose dreams are ensnared in New York City's renowned theater scene. There's also a distinctive phalanx of audio enthusiasts — musicians, engineers or a combination of the two — who can't seem to help getting wrapped up in the opportunities that spring off the stage.
Guy Messenger’s Soundscapers company provides royalty-free music for theatrical productions.
For Guy Messenger, founder of the royalty-free multimedia music library Soundscapers (www.soundscapers.org), the lure of Broadway and its off-off-offshoots was triply hard to resist. A multi-instrumentalist, engineer/producer and actor/voice-over artist, Messenger's inspiration to create Soundscapers arrived when he started to think hard about the unlicensed music he often heard in the smaller shows in which he's appeared.
“I was acting in what you call ‘black box’ theater productions — small plays,” he explains. “I noticed directors were using a lot of classic tracks and not worrying about the royalties because artists aren't generally concerned about use in 50-seat theaters. But for when plays move up to the next level, I thought, ‘Wouldn't it be great if they had a CD with 100 selections that emulated the artists, but were original and royalty-free?’”
Messenger became more and more focused on creating a library that would serve mid-level theaters and, armed with determination and a guerilla soldier's mentality, did just that. Interested only in world-class recording quality of real instruments — no canned beats or samples — for genres ranging from reggae to rock, jazz, Afrobeat and beyond, Messenger's search for a studio took him intriguingly far from his Brooklyn home base.
“I don't own a studio and I wasn't about to buy one,” he says, “so I shopped with an openness to big ideas, anywhere. I figured if I could get a good deal on a studio, then I wouldn't have to worry about the airfare to get there. I'm very glad that I found this place in Scotland: a studio called The Byre, which is a Scottish word for an old barn. What was important was finding a studio owner who cared, and Andrew Graeme called me in response to my query and took a long time talking to me. He said, ‘Come over and stay with me.’”
Messenger jetted from JFK to the Scottish Highlands and found an idyllic setting for laying down as many tracks as possible in a seven-day lockout. Recording through an Amek Media 51 console to a RADAR 48-track system, he played guitar, drums, percussion, Hammond organ and more, as well as enlisting the help of select local musicians. “I layered tracks until I ran out of time,” says Messenger. “Then I put it all on a LaCie portable hard drive, took it home and continued editing back in New York City.”
Knowing that there was a multitude of expertly staffed but affordable Pro Tools rooms from which to choose in Brooklyn, Messenger selected Galuminum Foil for its comfort level and velocity of engineer Jeff Berner. “I liked how fast Jeff worked and that he understood what I wanted to do,” he notes. “In addition to editing, I put new instrumentalists on to add things like saxophones and mandolin. There are so many musicians that are eager to work that you can trade services with them.”
Finished audio tracks finally in hand after roughly a year, Messenger then traded guitar lessons for a Website design and was officially in business. Although the library is also being applied to TV, film and multimedia use, Messenger is most interested in proving to theater's sometimes-conservative decision-makers that his innovative collection is really a must-have.
“It might not be a million-dollar product, but there's a need for it,” he says. “People are telling me that Soundscapers has made producing their play easier. I know I'm right — the challenge is convincing people of that.”
While Messenger is spreading the gospel about his work, a downtown Manhattan studio has already gotten its message across. In fact, Yellow Sound Lab Studios (www.yellowsoundlab.com) was actually booked solid the second it opened for business.
Already living a dream as the drummer for hit Broadway musical Avenue Q, Michael Croiter's other big dream came true in 2005 when he found out that the Disney-produced children's show Johnny and the Sprites chose him to produce music for a full season. “I was actually working out of my 58th Street bedroom apartment at the time, using Pro Tools LE and a few mics, but suddenly I needed something world-class,” he recalls. “It was November, and they said, ‘We're starting next August,’ so every second afterward that I wasn't on Avenue Q, I was on the hunt for the perfect studio. When I walked into this place, I said, ‘This is it.’”
“This place” was a former beauty shop on one of the East Village's most beautiful blocks, 5th Street between 2nd and 3rd Avenues. Croiter turned to studio architect John Storyk of Walters-Storyk Design Group (WSDG) to help turn the low-ceilinged (7.5 feet), 850-square-foot basement into a top-tier facility, complete with a versatile live room with Yamaha C2 grand piano, iso booth, machine room and spacious upstairs client lounge. Down to only a six-month window for actual construction, the turnaround was almost frighteningly fast, as WSDG worked around the multiple structural constraints to make the surprisingly comfortable Yellow Sound Lab (named in honor of Croiter's friendly Labrador, Tyler) fully functional in time for the deadline.
In addition to the TV scoring gig that started it all, Croiter has enjoyed a very fast start courtesy of his thorough understanding of the recording needs of the multiple top Broadway composers with whom he's connected. “What separates the Broadway composers from the rest is that they can write in any style for what's needed,” he says. “For example, Gary Adler and Michael Patrick Walker, who do their demos here, wrote the off-Broadway hit Altar Boyz, which is a riff on *NSYNC that's about a Christian boy band. It's hilarious, and the music is better than any boy-band music out there, but they've also written very classical theater pieces. Theater composers can do everything — they're compositional chameleons. My philosophy is to record their rock pieces, for example, 100 percent as if it's a rock band. You have to truly mix and produce for the genre that they're in, instead of saying, ‘This is for a musical.’”
According to Croiter, one of the biggest engineering challenges that comes with such versatility is manifested in vocal recordings. Working with his deep experience and a system, specified and integrated by Professional Audio Design that includes an Audient ACS-8024 console, Pro Tools HD, Apogee AD 16X/DA 16X converters, Dynaudio BM 15As and Aviom A16 personal mixers, Croiter is up to the task.
“Typically in rock, pop, jazz or most other situations, the vocal dynamic range is more predictable,” he notes. “But with what theater writers are doing, you have to constantly stay on top, which could mean riding faders or a whole lot more. My signal path for tricky vocals is a Lawson L47 tube condenser microphone, which is basically an updated Neumann U47 that happens to have a dip around 4 kHz, exactly where my iso booth has a little high-end issue. From there I go through a Millennia Origin STT-1 recording channel and straight into Pro Tools.
“I found if you go into the console after the preamp, it's too many gain stages and the sound gets compromised,” he continues. “That's one thing I've learned: When you get a new studio with lots of new toys and more plug-ins than ever, you start loading things on to sessions just because you have it. Then you start taking things away and it gets better.”
Between being centerstage at his own facility and shuttling off nightly to the orchestra pit of Avenue Q, Croiter has learned a few things about being a studio owner in New York City. “I've learned that there's more time and money involved to do it right, but it's been worth every second and dime,” he says. “I'm working every day, all day, and I just thank God it's in the music business. If it weren't something I was enjoying, that would be a problem!”
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